How Young Is Too Young for Preschool?

Most pre-schools accept children at the age of 2½, some as young as two. That doesn't mean that a child is ready for preschool at that age. How do you tell if your child is ready for preschool? How young is too young? Let's take a look at some signs that indicate a child is developmentally ready for preschool.

The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that public prekindergarten enrollment will be 1.3 million in 2015.

Is Preschool Even Important?

Anna Jane Hays, a child development expert and author says the saying, "the sooner the better" definitely applies with regard to a structured opportunity for learning. She refers to a Carnegie Foundation study that concluded children who began education early got more out of school and were more likely to graduate high school and college. Those participating in preschool programs were also healthier than their peers who did not. She emphasizes that kids who attend preschool are better prepared to succeed in later schooling because they already know how to get along with others, have better language skills, and wider experiences to draw from.

There are some arguments that say preschool is not important or worth the cost. They believe preschool is only for low-income families. The National Institute for Early Education Research says that ALL students show cognitive and social improvements from preschool. The NIEER studies show that even with parents dedicated to their child's improvement preschool makes a difference. NIEER studies also show that the improvements gained from preschool attendance are not temporary and that test scores and the social and emotional benefits carry throughout the school experience.

Other studies support the conclusions of NIEER. A 2005 study in Oklahoma measured the effects of preschool on cognitive development and determined that the pre-K program enhanced the school readiness of children from diverse backgrounds.

Studies in cognitive development show that children go through stages and that those stages affect learning. The most well-known theory to those in child development or education belongs to Piaget. His Preoperational stage applies to children age 2-7. According to Piaget, children this age can have language development stimulated with art, dramatic plays, songs, and stories. Joining classes of their peers helps children move past the egocentrism that is a characteristic of children this age, and allows them to learn to share and develop awareness of others. His theory states that children this age don't have internalized rules yet, so they require constant reminding to achieve positive social interactions. Another behaviorist, Lev Vygotsky, believed children develop how they think and understand primarily through social interaction. His theory also states that talking to children helps them develop thinking skills.

These theories and others underscore the value of preschool. While studies, such as the one published in the February 2007 issue of the Economics of Education Review, indicate that greatest academic benefit is found when children start preschool at the ages of 2-3, it is important to remember that in all these studies that cognitive development happens during a range of ages. The key is that a child learns best when developmentally ready, and not necessarily at a specific chronological age.

How Do You Tell If a Child Is Developmentally Ready?

Parenting Magazine asked a number of developmental psychologists and preschool teachers what would indicate a child is ready for preschool. Parental motivation was listed as a factor; however, as Dr. Amanda Moreno said in the article, even if the motivation is to "get a break from the child," it isn't something to feel guilty about. She says that, as a parent, "you can feel good about the fact that preschool is providing you the gift of sanity which helps you be a better parent, and as a bonus, your child is gaining new skills and probably enjoying himself to boot."

Here are some other factors to consider:

  • Can the child tolerate separation? The ability to handle anxiety is a concern to many parents. Most children adjust fine. If there are separation issues, try short doses. Many preschools will let you drop a child off for short periods of time the first few days.
  • Independence of the child. While most preschools would like the children to be potty-trained, it isn't always required to start. Other basic needs, however, like washing up, eating lunch without assistance, and fastening buttons are beneficial. In addition to relieving that from the teacher, it gives the child self-confidence that will help the transition to preschool.
  • The child's health. The larger the classes, the more likely this could be an issue. In the Parenting Magazine article, pediatrician Dr. Anatoly Belilovsky recommends keeping a child prone to infections or bronchitis out of group environments like school for longer, if possible.
  • Ability to interact with others. While Piaget and others state that peer interaction in groups like preschool help lessen egocentrism and encourages sharing, the child should be able to understand appropriate behavior even if they can't model it yet. Parents can help in this by taking natural opportunities to have their child play with others.
  • Attention Span. No, a child does not have to be able to sit quietly in a chair for six hours a day. Experts say that a child should be able to focus roughly a length of time in minutes equal to their age.
  • Ability to communicate. Successful communication doesn't necessarily have to be verbal to be able to function in preschool. Pointing or similar expressions can help the child tell the teacher his or her needs. Struggles with communicating, however, can cause a lot of frustration for the child, the teacher, and fellow classmates. Preschool should be a positive experience, so it might be better to wait to enter preschool in that situation.
  • Is the child comfortable with routine. This is something that can be worked on at home. Though there is much less than in later grades, even preschool has structures and routines that need to be followed.
  • The ability to follow simple rules and listen to others. Children are going to have this ability in varying degrees, but even if they don't fully have these abilities, they need to be able to acquire these skills early for success in school.

Don't worry if a child isn't ready for preschool as early as you would like. Children can still learn to socialize, read, write, and more without preschool. Preschool does have tremendous benefits, but only if the child is ready.